WordPress or Squarespace—Which Should You Pick?
UPDATE: I recently switched back to Squarespace. That may be surprising considering the original opinion expressed in this post. I'm updating the post to explain why.
I'll leave my original opinions here, and my revised review will be in bold type.
WordPress is the most popular platform on the web. It is the 800-pound gorilla. Wordpress makes up more than 27% of the internet.
Squarespace doesn't release numbers, so it's difficult to say exactly how many Squarespace sites there are. Suffice to say there are far fewer Squarespace sites than WordPress.
No matter what the numbers, Squarespace is the best known of the template-driven website builders such as Wix and Weebly, thanks in part to Squarespace’s massive marketing campaign. You can hardly listen to a podcast without hearing Squarespace sponsors it. While I would have liked to have included Wix and Weebly in this review, I do not have any experience with either, so I do not cover them in this post.
I said “blogging platforms” when referring to Squarespace and WordPress, but both are actually content management systems (CMS). In other words, they are for more than just blogs. You can run entire websites with them.
Much to my embarrassment, I have spent a good deal of time this past summer with both Squarespace and WordPress. I couldn’t make up my mind which one I liked better, and I kept switching back and forth until I recently made a final (I hope) decision.
I’m going to walk you through the factors I considered and my findings regarding both platforms.
Why the switch?
Like almost any review, the opinions expressed before--and now--were arbitrary interpretations based on my needs and desires for a website at the time. My needs haven't changed so much as my desires.
Customization & Ease of Use
I planned "customization" to only discuss the ability to customize the site and not the ease of use. But I found it almost impossible to not discuss the ability without whether or not it was easy to do. So, as you can see, I combined the categories.
For both Squarespace and WordPress, I’ll cover what I call site customization and page customization. As the names suggest, site customization deals with customizing the site’s structure as a whole and page customization focuses more on the placement of various elements on the pages of the website.
Squarespace goes out of its way to make it easy to customize your site. But by doing so, Squarespace makes it harder than necessary.
I know that sounds like a contradiction, but think back to when you first learned how to use a computer and you wanted to cut and paste. You would highlight the words, then mouse up to the edit menu, and clicked "cut." Then you moved the cursor to where you wanted to insert the words you had cut, you clicked, and then you went back up to the edit menu to click paste.
After a while, you realized it could speed things up by using the right-click menu. Later, you learned the keyboard shortcuts and cutting and pasting is much faster than when you first began.
With Squarespace, you're stuck with the beginner method. It's simple and it works, but it feels limiting.
Site customization is a mixed bag with Squarespace. Squarespace's best-known feature is its templates. At the time of writing, Squarespace’s help pages list 24 active templates.
These templates are all top-notch, as far as design goes. The template designers picked colors that coordinate well with one another, and they used beautiful typography. To start designing a site, all you have to do is pick a template and start from there.
At least, Squarespace wants you to think it’s that easy. There’s more to it than that. Not all templates have the same features, so you have to match the template to how you want the site to work.
For example, to me, a blog was important. While all Squarespace templates can have blog pages, there are different ways to display blog posts, such as grids, lists, and full posts. Not every template has every option available.
Adding Content to Squarespace
Once you pick a template, however, the site structure is relatively easy to set up. To add an element to the site’s main navigation, you click a plus sign (at upper right of photo).
Squarespace then presents you with another graphical menu with the different elements you can add to the site. E.g., a page, a folder, a blog, etc.
The basic idea is that you are adding these to the navigation menu of your site. To keep the page out of the navigation menu but still allow it to be publicly accessible, you can drag the page down to the "Not Linked" section. (see Figure 1).
Notice those small locks to the right of the pages listed in the navigation menu? That lock indicates a (non-logged-in) user cannot access the page without a password. That is Squarespace's way of hiding the pages from search engines. Alright, technically, it also hides it from anyone who may know the page's URL but not know the password. To set the password, you have to go into the page's settings. In my opinion, this is more clicks than necessary. There should be at least some way to access the settings or lock the page directly from the context menu (the "right-click menu").
Squarespace again uses graphical menus to customize page elements.
Squarespace's page editor uses the concept of content blocks. You can have gallery blocks, text blocks, code blocks, and so forth. Interestingly, WordPress appears to be moving in this direction with plans for a revision to its visual editor.
To add a block to a page, you go to an insertion point. See the rounded pointer-type thing circled in Figure 2? That's an insertion point. Click on the insertion point, and Squarespace presents you with yet another graphical menu where you choose what kind of block to insert.
Once you place the block on the page, you can begin filling it with content or you can move it to a different place on the page. That is sometimes easier said than done. The editor can be kind of ticky when it comes to placing elements next to one another. Less than a sixteenth of an inch difference in where you place the cursor can result in an element taking up the entire half of the page or it inserted neatly beside another element.
Adding Photos to a Page in Squarespace
When it comes to photos, Squarespace's support pages instruct the user to use images between 1500 and 2500 pixels wide. You can then resize the image by either cropping or by using other content blocks.
To resize the image and maintain the aspect ratio, you have to adjust the width of the content block by dragging the sides or by inserting another content block adjacent to the image you want to resize. There is also a "cropping handle" that you can use to crop the image. The cropping handle behaves strangely. You drag the handle up to crop vertically, and down to crop horizontally. There is no way to crop to a particular aspect ratio.
Most people think WordPress has a steeper learning curve than Squarespace and that it's not as user-friendly. There is no doubt it looks more intimidating, at least at first. Just take a look at the post editor page as I work on this post. Perhaps the best way to put it is that Squarespace was built to be beautiful, and WordPress was built to be functional.
One such example is in the different menus. In Squarespace, there is an elegance in the design of the menus, as you have seen. This, on the other hand, is the admin sidebar in WordPress, which contains most areas a user will need to frequent.
Where Squarespace goes for a minimalist approach, WordPress takes the opposite approach and makes everything available at once. And that's not all of the admin bar! Most of what you see listed have submenus if you hover over the menu item on the sidebar.
Personally, I prefer WordPress's admin sidebar to Squarespace's menus. It gets annoying having to click through several menus to get to the command or tool you want when you can click right on it in WordPress.
The structure of a WordPress site is, at least somewhat, determined by what theme and what plugins you use. Wordpress themes are like Squarespace's templates. They control how the site looks, and to a degree, the structure of the site.
Where Squarespace has 24 or so templates, no one can be sure how many WordPress themes exist. While WordPress.org maintains a repository for themes, theme developers do not have to submit their themes to the repository. As of writing, the "popular" category in the WordPress theme repository contained 2, 615 themes.
Many themes are maintained outside the repository. Further, many WordPress installations have unique, custom themes designed solely for those respective sites. It would be safe to say the total number of themes. is in the tens of thousands if not more.
Plugins, on the other hand, are "add-ons" for WordPress themes and sites. They usually add some functionality to WordPress or change the appearance, but there are some plugins that limit the functionality of a site. At the time of drafting, the WordPress plugin repository boasted it contained over 52,000 plugins.
Because WordPress is so prevalent, there are plenty of free tutorials and guides for its installation. If you need to reference any, I highly recommend WPBeginner. Just know that its parent company also develops many of the plugins and themes it recommends, so always seek second opinions for those.
You install a theme to your WordPress site in one of two ways. First, if the theme is in the WordPress repository, you can download it directly to your site and then activate it. More commonly, a theme is downloaded to the user's computer in the form of a zip file. It is then uploaded via the WordPress interface, where WordPress installs the theme and gives you the option to activate it (or "go live" in Squarespace parlance).
From there, the number of ways you can customize your site is almost limitless. Well, they really are limitless. The only limits are your knowledge of coding, your ability to buy a designer theme, or your ability to hire someone to code you a custom theme.
Again, your theme will have some bearing on how you can customize the on-page elements of a WordPress site.
For example, some themes, including the theme on the site you're currently reading, feature "widgetized" home pages. All the body of the page is taken up by widgets. Think of a widget as a content block in Squarespace. They are small blocks with specific functions. For example, you can have a category widget that lists categories of blog posts. You can have text or HTML widgets in which you can write text or code. Originally, widgets were restricted to sidebars, but, as stated, some themes have removed that restriction and allow widgets to be placed on some of the site's pages.
The image above is what WordPress calls the visual editor. It is not quite a WYSIWYG editor, but it is a rough approximation. For now, I'm going to ignore the peripheral panels and concentrate only on the actual editor, which is in the middle of the above image.
When you focus just on the editor, you'll see it's not that complicated after all. You have toolbars similar to what is found in any word processor. Some tools and buttons are added to the editor by plugins, such as the buttons shown here for galleries, albums, forms, and shortcodes.
Adding Images to a Wordpress Post
To add an image or other media, you place the cursor at the desired insertion point, and click on "Add Media." This takes you to the WordPress media library.
At the media library, you can select an image or upload a new image. You can also specify three different sizes for an image (these sizes are user-defined in WordPress settings), and you can choose whether the align the image to the left, right, center, or justified.
Unlike Squarespace where you place each image in a particular post or page, WordPress maintains a database of images that can be placed anywhere on your site where you can place content. This, in my opinion, is superior because to re-use an image in another Squarespace page, you must re-upload it. (There are ways to move or copy the images in Squarespace, but I found it easier and quicker to just re-upload the image.)
Customization & Usability Winner: WordPress
There is no limit to how WordPress can be customized. While it has a slightly steeper learning curve than Squarespace, the inability to "take off the training wheels" from Squarespace quickly causes repetitive tasks to become annoying. I want there to be a quicker way to do a task rather than having to click through three or four menus. I can go directly to the command I want in WordPress, so I find its ease of use better.
Further, there are certain items that are common on websites that Squarespace does not implement. Things such as page sidebars. There is a way to imitate one in Squarespace, but I find workarounds to be clunky compared to the real thing.
WordPress is open source. It's code is available for anyone to see or to modify. That's a strength. It makes it easy to modify.
This same strengh is also a weakness. It makes it easy for hackers to gain access.
My website was recently hacked. Or, at least I think it was. There was some strange code appearing causing my security plugin to raise some alerts. Some people more knowledgeable than I said it looked like I had been hacked. Others said it was nothing to worry about.
Maybe I'm overreacting, but that really caused me to be concerned about WordPress security. I did everything you should do: I used a password that was 20 characters long and completely random. I don't even know the password; I use LastPass. I used a security plugin that regularly scanned my WordPress installation. I followed all the security recommendations. Yet it still happened.
Do I need to know how to code in order to use Wordpress?
I have seen a couple of places online say you need to be able to code in order to use Wordpress. That's simply not true. In fact, there are page builder plugins you can use with Wordpress, such as Elementor, MotoPress, and Beaver Builder that add the capability of drag and drop page building
[That's true, you don't need to know code, but there are plenty of times when it would have helped. That is true with Squarespace as well. With Squarespace, you can "inject" custom CSS to make some style changes to your site.]
Many WordPress proponents brag that WordPress is free. I think there's more to the comparison than that. First, we need to make sure we are comparing apples to apples.
There are four different pricing plans: Personal, Business, and two e-commerce plans. Since most photographers will not use the e-commerce plans, I will only discuss the Personal and Business plan.
The Personal plan costs $16 per month, or $144 per year (so it's like getting three months free if you pay for an entire year). For that, you get web hosting, a domain (limited to certain top-level domains), and maintenance and update of the WordPress platform. Oh, yeah, you can't forget access to the templates. You are limited to 20 pages and two contributors
The Business plan includes everything in the Personal plan. Additionally, you get an email address through GSuite, $100 in ad-words credit, and the ability to have promotional popups. This will set you back $26 per month, or, if you pay annually, or $216 per year.
WordPress itself is free. But just having WordPress doesn't do you any good. You need a web host. That could cost you anywhere from $3 a month to hundreds, depending on the size of your site. For most photographers, though you're looking at $20 or less per month. For the purpose of this post, I'll use Siteground hosting, which is one of the most popular hosts. I'll choose their "Go Geek" plan, which is their top shared hosting plan. It's $11.95 per month.
Then you need a theme. You can certainly try to get by with a free theme, but you more than likely will want a designer theme. Again, the price varies widely, but I'll say $75. The bad news is for many themes, there is an annual fee for support and updates. It's included when you buy the theme, but if you want to keep support, you'll have to pay again (usually a lesser fee) next year.
Plugins. You're going to need plugins. The good news is the great majority are free! There are a few for which you'll want to pay, though. I'll use a conservative estimate of $50 for plugins.
Once you total all the costs, a WordPress installation is going to cost you around $270 your first year, and maybe less each year after that.
Cost Winner: Tie
I'm calling this one a draw. I cannot call a true winner given the estimates of costs I made.
It's really difficult to do a fair comparison here because there are so many variables when it comes to WordPress: the theme, the hosting, plugins, maintenance. All have free or low-cost alternatives, and just how much you'll spend depends on what exactly you want (and can afford).
Nickel and Dimed
You frequently read that it is so much less expensive to run WordPress than it is Squarespace. That is true, to an extent.
WordPress itself is free. The current cost of a Squarespace personal plan is $16 per month (or $144 if you pay for the entire year). So, yeah, looking at that, WordPress is a better deal. With WordPress, though, I have to pay for a premium theme, premium plugins, and hosting. By the time I do that, I'm paying twice what I would for Squarespace. Yeah, there are free versions of themes and plugins, but we all know that you get what you pay for.
I felt like every time I turned around with WordPress, I was paying for something else. I'm all for businesses making a profit, and I know nothing in life is free. But as the "little guy" in all of this, I have to watch my costs.
Hosting and Domain
Types of Hosting
Before I get into this comparison, I need to give you some information on the different types of hosting.
The most basic type of web host account is shared hosting. Basically, the data for your website is on a server with a bunch of other websites. All of these websites have to share a finite amount of resources such as processor time and physical memory. Generally, you are responsible for backing up your data and any updates to WordPress or whatever software you may have installed on the server.
The next level up is managed hosting. In a managed hosting plan, the host assigns each website a portion of the server's resources. The host manages the resources to distribute them according to the hosting plan to which you subscribe. So, the host may guarantee you something like 1GB of physical memory and 10 GB of server disk space. The host generally maintains backups of your website as well as server-level caching, which speeds up the delivery of your site to the end user. There are dedicated WordPress managed hosts, such as Lightning Base, (affiliate link) the one I use. (I guess I just gave the ending away. Oops!)
Next up is a virtual private server (VPS). A VPS is a virtual machine on a physical server. In everyday terms, this is a portion of a server that has its own operating system and which the host manages separately from other virtual servers on the same physical server.
If you get to the point where you need a VPS, you have really hit the big time. Most photographers will get by on shared or managed hosting.
I recommend managed hosting. The extra speed and support make the small difference in price well worthwhile.
I have been extremely pleased with my managed host,XXXXXXXXXX . I usually get a response to my support requests within minutes. The speed is nothing short of incredible, and the price is extremely reasonable, with the plan with the lowest price only $9.95 per month.
I'm no longer with that host, obviously, so why give them publicity?
Squarespace creates your site in a subdomain of Squarespace.com. So, your true URL will be something like your-name-pkpt.squarespace.com. You can point another domain you own at the Squarespace site. Squarespace will either sell you the domain or you can use one registered through a third-party. Note: many experts think you should keep your host and domain registrar separate.
Which TLD's are available from Squarespace? There are far too many to list here, so I'll link you to their support page. If you want a TLD that isn't available from Squarespace, you will have to purchase it from a third-party registrar such as Namecheap. You can then easily point that domain to your Squarespace site so that someone typing that URL will go to your site.
As far as hosting goes, Squarespace says it is a "fully managed" host. They take care of backups for your site, but there is no way for you to directly access the backup. Honestly, though, I think that is standard among hosts who backup client sites. They take care of the security of your site through software on their servers, so you never have to worry about malware or a DDOS attack.
As far as your content on Squarespace, yes you own the content, but Squarespace stores it in their proprietary format. So, Squarespace locks you in to their service, in that sense. While Squarespace has a way to export your content into a format that WordPress can understand, it's not perfect. I have lost a post or two when transferring my data.
Squarespace does have a way to export your content into a format that WordPress can understand, but it's not perfect. I have lost a post or two when transferring my data.
To host a WordPress site, you need to first purchase a hosting plan from a hosting company. It is up to you whether the hosting is shared, managed, VPS, or dedicated. Once you have secured hosting, you point the domain to the host.
Many hosts will install WordPress for you. If they don't nearly all hosts have a one-click install of WordPress, so it's almost as easy as Squarespace.
Regarding content, WordPress stores data as XML files and SQL databases. These are open standards that WordPress can easily export into other programs.
As another aside, I think it's best to always keep your domain registered with a different company than your host, whether that host is Squarespace or a company that hosts WordPress sites. While it can be convenient to have everything with one company, I've read about too many problems when transferring to a different host and your domain being held hostage.
Hosting and Domain: WordPress
WordPress just squeaks by in this category. It's purely the number of options that give it the win. Squarespace binds you to one hosting company, itself, and whatever level of service they provide. With WordPress, you have the freedom to choose a level of service and a hosting company.
I'm not sure there's even any need to break this down. Squarespace wins this category with WordPress a distant second.
That's not to say that WordPress sites are ugly or there aren't any WordPress sites that look better than Squarespace. Squarespace's professionally designed templates practically guarantee your site will look good.
Squarespace templates all have a fit and finish to them that you get with few free WordPress templates. The cost also includes the Squarespace templates. That's what gives them the win.
If there is one bad thing about Squarespace templates it's that they almost all still have that "new template smell" to them. You know a Squarespace site when you see it. If you want to get around this, you can hire a professional designer who has limited access to the "back end" of the Squarespace template and can customize it more for you.
I think the best analogy for comparing Squarespace and Wordpress is looking at the Mac vs PC debate.
Squarespace, because it's all one "ecosystem," just works. You can add lots of plugins and themes to Wordpress, all from different developers. This can lead to conflicts. As each plugin and theme is updated on different schedules, you can suddenly have conflicts where you didn't have a conflict before. These conflicts can be hard to detect.
For example, on WordPress, I used Envira Gallery for my photo galleries. Late last year, I discovered there was some bug/conflict that was causing only the top half of each photo in my portfolio to display. Sometimes, the photos wouldn't display at all.
With Squarespace, there is only one developer, so they make sure that all the "moving parts" mesh with all the rest.
What happens when there is a problem with your site? Who ya gonna call? Not Ghostbusters!
When it comes to support, Squarespace is the Apple of websites. Squarespace has total control over the platform and a great deal of control over the site templates (they do allow some customization, after all). In that environment, it is very easy to provide support to your user.
Squarespace support has always been extremely quick and friendly in my interactions. In addition to dedicated support personnel, Squarespace maintains a community forum in which users can seek the advice of other users.
To continue my metaphor, WordPress is like having a PC? Who do you turn to for support? There are different parts and you (or support) have to figure out which part is causing the problem. Is it your host? WordPress itself? Is it a plugin or your theme?
This is another reason why I recommend managed hosting. They take care of the first two for you, and can often help you with the latter two. A WordPress managed host knows the ins and outs of WordPress and has seen many different conflicts, so they can quickly diagnose problems.
Suppose you just have shared hosting? Well, the quality of hosts varies widely and some provide better support than others.
You have limited options when you must self-diagnose WordPress problems. There are the wordpress.org forums and Google. Fortunately, with WordPress's massive install base, you can bet you're probably not the only one with the problem.
Support Winner: Squarespace
Squarespace's simplicity helps their support timely diagnose and solve problems. Like Apple, Squarespace is in charge of its ecosystem. Wordpress, on the other hand, allows users to assemble a website from many different components from many different sources.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of organizing your website's structure and content so the site will rank higher in search engine results. There are two main types of SEO, on-site and off-site. On-site refers to the optimization of certain elements of your site. Off-site SEO largely consists of links to your site from other websites. Because it is largely outside the control of the website platform, I'm only discussing on-site SEO.
When most people think of on-site SEO, they think of keywords in your content, but there is much more to it than that. In fact, there is a danger in focusing too much on keywords. It may lead to keyword spam, which can hurt your SEO.
User-engagement factors also fall under on-site SEO. You want to do what you can to make it easier for the reader to consume your content and stay on your page. Examples include the use of headings and subheadings, the placement of images, and using long-form content.
Now, on to my evaluation of Squarespace and WordPress SEO.
SEO Winner: WordPress
Just as there was no need to break down the Design category because Squarespace was the clear winner, WordPress is the clear winner for SEO. Let me explain.
If you have googled "Squarespace SEO" you have seen a lot of out-of-date information. I tried Squarespace several years ago, and its SEO features were absolutely awful!
Squarespace has come a long way since then, but unfortunately, it still has ways to go. It's as if the Squarespace developers got 85-90% of the way to matching WordPress for SEO and said that's good enough.
Plugins add or enhance many SEO features to WordPress. The king of WordPress SEO is the Yoast SEO plugin. Once you install the Yoast plugin, you'll see the "meta box" (show below) under the WordPress visual editor.
The Yoast meta box helps you with SEO in several ways. First, notice the colored dots. These rate how well you have optimized the content for your focused keyword, and, on a separate tab, it evaluates the readability of what you have written.
Second, the Yoast box lets you set a post or page title and a description, both of which are important for SEO, all from one location.
What about Squarespace? First, there is no evaluation system such as Yoast’s colored dots.That doesn’t bother me so much. It’s that annoying menu-driven system again. In Squarespace, you have to go through two or three menus to get to what is right there in front of you in WordPress.
Additionally, titles and descriptions have optimal character counts. There’s no built-in method to count characters with Squarespace. Then there's the whole issue of alt text. Alt text is text that describes the content of an image to a search engine (because search engines are only capable of scanning text). Squarespace allows you to insert alt text, but just how you do it depends if the image is in a thumbnail, inside an image blog, a gallery block, a gallery page, or a product image. With some templates, you cannot hide the alt text, and with others, you can.
SEO expert Rebecca Gill recently performed a very open-minded evaluation of the SEO features of WordPress, Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix. She found WordPress had far and away more SEO features than Squarespace, which came in second place.
Update: If you go to the Gill article, be sure to read the comments. Some of what she said wasn't available in Squarespace is available, but because she was unfamiliar with the platform, or because Squarespace calls it something different, she did not realize the feature was available.
So, it's not that Squarespace SEO is really that bad, it's just they make it
very hard slightly harder to have good SEO.
Update 2: My biggest complaint right now is the way Squarespace handles alt text. It's ok, but defintely not ideal. Please read and sign this petition so we can let Squarespace know we want this fixed.
Update: For the most part, I agree with the results from before, but I would definitely give Squarespace an edge now in the Cost category. It is very true, though, that the ultimate decision will depend on what is important to you. After my experience with my suspected hacking, security and stability became much more important to me.
Let's look back at our categories and winners:
- Customization and Ease of Use: WordPress
- Cost: Tie
- Hosting & Domain: WordPress
- Design: Squarespace
- Support: Squarespace
- SEO: WordPress
It's a tie between WordPress and Squarespace. They each won two categories and tied in the cost category. This just goes to show that it really comes down to what is important to you.
I value SEO and customization above all else, so WordPress is the winner for me. Further, I am also pretty comfortable with technology, and I don't mind getting "down in the weeds" of a website's code when needed. I think it's pretty fun.
However, if you're the type that needs more hand-holding, and values design above all else, then Squarespace would be a good choice for you.
Give and Take
I fully admit that I am giving up some very nice features by using Squarespace.
I'll miss SEO plugins such as Yoast most of all. Squarespace itself isn't bad for SEO, but it's not as easy as it is with WordPress, especially using those plugins.
Squarespace's image SEO is not very consistent in my opinion. The ability to add alt text to images depends on whether you are using gallery blocks or gallery pages and on the template you use.
Wordpress, originally being a blogging platform, is built around blogging, although it is capable of much, much more. Blogging still feels like an afterthought with Squarespace. The blogging features vary depending on which template you use.
There's no convenient way of doing related posts in Squarespace. There are workarounds though.
Peace of Mind
I'm willing to take those limitations though, for the peace of mind that comes along with Squarespace. Speaking of peace of mind, you just can't beat Squarespace's support. With WordPress, you're best bet for support tends to be online forums. So have you switched from Squarespace to WordPress or WordPress to Squarespace? Let me know your experience in the comments.